The Ghost Writer has a very simple premise: it concerns a young writer’s search for the spiritual father, one who will comprehend and validate his art, and whose support will justify his inevitable flight from a loving but conventionally constricting Jewish middle-class home. It took me some minutes before moving again and thinking of something else after finishing this. I think it is one of those books; one of those books in which, somewhere near the end, you begin holding your breath because you realize that you are being swept up in something undeniably beautiful, moving, profound, yet just beyond the reaches of easy comprehension — the kind of book that, instead of simply closing and putting on your bookshelf, you open back up and breath in the scent of the pages, eyes shut, trying to relive the experience of reading it.
My iTunes is still playing (since lately I can’t do anything in silence), and it’s so inappropriate to go along with this novel. Rihanna is bleating. My room is quite chill, since this city town does get cold in the mornings and I always leave my window open (the same way I always have music on). Yet the overwhelming feeling in the pit of my stomach, this yearning to place my finger on what just happened, is not going away. I can barely even express the basic plot of the novel, in the simplest of terms; instead, it’s one dark shadow of a time, a place, an idea.
Last month, I read my first Philip Roth, Sabbath’s Theater, and though I’ve always loved to love the literary rebels and the scatologically-inclined — the scandalous men of letters — it was quite underwhelming. I’ve heard Roth praised by critics as a pinnacle of the provocative literary luminary, and I’ve also heard him disparaged as a nihilistic writer-pornographer of vulgar trash. Having read two of his major works, I guess Roth is one of those writers who can write both about amazing things and about shitty things, and with the shitty things, you’re just like, “where the hell did this come from?”
The plot of The Ghost Writer seems all too simple, but it masks layers of thematic complexity. The literary quest of Nathan Zuckerman, the young writer, brings him to E.I. Lonoff, whose work — exquisite parables of desire restrained — Nathan much admires. Recently discovered by the literary world after decades of obscurity, Lonoff continues to live as a semi-recluse in rural Massachusetts with his wife, Hope, scion of an old New England family, whom the young immigrant married thirty-five years before.
At the Lonoffs’ Nathan also meets Amy Belette, a haunting young woman of indeterminate foreign background. He is instantly infatuated with the attractive and gifted girl, and at first takes her for the aging writer’s daughter. She turns out to be a former student of Lonoff’s — and may also have been Lonoff’s mistress. Zuckerman, with his imaginative curiosity, wonders if she could be the paradigmatic victim of Nazi persecution. If she were, it might change his life.
Though Zuckerman is full of hopes for a broader relationship with Lonoff, he soon discovers that his idol is a petulant and insecure man who has used and, in some cases, emotionally abused, those around him, all in the name of “art.” Spending a sleepless winter night on the couch in Lonoff’s den, Zuckerman investigates Lonoff’s library, especially Lonoff’s collection of the writings of Henry James, whom Lonoff admires so much, tries to write a letter to his estranged father (who is appalled by one of Nathan’s recent short stories, which, he feels, feeds anti-Semitic prejudice), and ponders the relationship between genuine creativity, editing and revision, and the possible responsibilities of a writer beyond his own creative impulse.
A figure of fun to the New York literati, a maddeningly single-minded isolate to his wife, teacher-father-savior to Amy, Lonoff embodies for an enchanted Nathan the ideal of artistic integrity and independence. Hope sees Amy (as does Amy herself) as Lonoff’s last chance to break out of his self-imposed constraints, and she bitterly offers to leave him to the younger woman, a chance that, like one of his own heroes, Lonoff resolutely continues to deny himself. Nathan, although in a state of youthful exultation over his early successes, is still troubled by the conflict between two kinds of conscience: tribal and family loyalties, on the one hand, and the demands of fiction, as he sees them, on the other. A startling imaginative leap and then a final confrontation lead to the beginnings of a kind of wisdom about the unreckoned consequences of art.
The Ghost Writer is a novel about authors, the process of creative writing, and the nature, meaning, and techniques of fiction itself. Roth explores the tension between literature and life through the eyes of Nathan Zuckerman, who looks back to his younger days when as a young writer. With great skill and imagination, Roth draws us into the intriguing debate on the responsibility of an artist towards society. Is Nathan morally on safe grounds to publish a novel about the life of his family when he knows that the dirty linen he exposes will cause offence to his relatives and his community? Is Lonoff (a literary giant though he is) deserving of Nathan’s worship when he is willing to spend his entire life “writing and rearranging sentences” but shamelessly neglects his long suffering wife and children? Are the artist’s rights in the name of truth and art ultimately a selfish privilege which asks that we blind ourselves to the larger costs, whatever they are? These are issues concerning the “madness of art” which Roth handles subtly and without seeming pedentic or preachy. The last section of the novel is an absolute gem. It develops unexpectedly into a teaser which sets up a head-on collision between art and life and leaves the reader wondering about the true identity of Amy.
This is a story about the writing of stories, and it explores the fictional lives writers create from their own lives and the sacrifices they make. As Lonoff’s wife says of Lonoff, “Not living is what he makes his beautiful fiction out of.” And Henry James says in a motto Lonoff has framed in his den, “We give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and passion is our task.”
The novel ends in reality. It ends with a disturbed, heartbroken woman. It ends with an angry, heartbroken girl, figuring out her place in the world. It ends with a lonely, yet knowing writer questioning his way of life. It ends with a young man, putting words on a page, having grown up in only a night, but not sure how. And it ends with a reader, moved in ways she’s uncertain of, trying to grapple with the lavender-covered novel sitting before her on her desk, wondering how to go with the motions of her day.